Next-Generation Youth Spaces

Church design to meet youth where they live, a roundtable discussion


Cathy Hutchison  ·  September 19, 2012

Most of our youth spaces have come a long way from the metal folding chairs in a basement that were once the norm. And while climbing walls and video-game stations may be what comes to mind in cutting-edge ministry, WFM asked designers who are working with youth ministries on new spaces across the country—what is truly next?

WFM: What’s in the future for youth ministry facilities that will have real traction and influence?

“With technology evolving it is hard to say,” comments Dave Benham, principal of LS3P’s Faith-Based Studio in Greenville, S.C. “ Of all the ministries in the church, I think youth ministers in particular need to be on the edge of things. We want to make sure there are no obstacles in the way of evolving ministries.”

Sandy Gibbes in church development and design, also with LS3P, adds, “The trend is toward spaces that foster authenticity, both environmental and relational. They don’t want ‘fluff’ in a lot of artificial theming, but rather timeless design that integrates—not alienates—them into the church. There is design sensitivity to lasting emotion (relationships) over temporary emotion (environments). We try to design spaces that foster lasting relationships.”

“The trend is definitely to provide spaces that engage people in interaction,” says Scott Nelson, principal of HH Architects in Dallas. “Game stations and basketball courts are diminishing in favor of a café and hangout environment. Most of the recreation and technology is no longer a ‘wow’ factor. They already have that stuff. The young people are looking for something they can’t get at home—which in many cases is community.”

Richard Carver, founder and CEO of Little Mountain Productions in Tulsa, Okla., states, “We see a difference based on where ministries are located geographically. We have pursued edgier area design like shared community spaces, but we still have requests to do things we’ve been doing for the past 18 years. A lot is about spending time with the youth pastors who know the culture and the kids. For some, the solution will be high-tech such as two-sided, large-screen video displays with games in high definition. But we are finding the trend is toward communal … the living room or coffee house feel.”

Ravi Waldon, founder and principal of Waldon Studio Architects in Columbia, Md., adds, “We are seeing churches doing amazing things in sharing their resources for the community. The spaces are designed to meet community needs without imposing the ‘churchy feel.’ Zion Baptist Church in Baltimore is building the Waltherson Community Center specifically for [its] community. Environments include a multipurpose gymnasium, six-lane aquatic center, youth and adult fitness centers, art, science and computer labs and associated locker rooms, and amenities for use by the neighborhood.”

“The Hangar facility, built 10 years ago by First Baptist Church in Spartanburg was part of the mission of an established church in an urban area,” Benham says. “If you were to go over at 3 p.m., the place was flooded with kids. Not ‘their’ kids, but the community at large. The church had staff dedicated to run that program. There were computer labs; a snack shop for after school food. It became a safe place for kids to hang out.”

Gibbes shares, “Youth are big on anticipation. At Athens Church in Athens, Ga.,—a North Point Community Church [Atlanta-area] strategic partner, we worked to cultivate that environment of anticipation. We designed two massive garage doors with opaque glass separating the pre-function café from the youth worship center. You could see lights and color and hear music as the team prepared for the service. When the garage doors rolled up everyone poured in.”

Nelson finds that sometimes kids are in anticipation of down time. “In many of the areas we work, the kids are so busy. Select sports, high-pressure academics, extra-curricular activities—the youth are so busy that they need the space to unplug and unwind,” he says. “Intentional space for community over distractions allows them to be who they really are and connect.”

Carver concurs, adding, “Smart churches are spending a lot of time on the lobby. People want to hang out and talk to each other. We are seeing the same thing with the youth—especially with the girls. It has always been hard to find something for the girls to do in terms of video games, but what we’ve found is that they would rather sit around and talk. A real plus is that these community areas also work for small group spaces. Time for amusement and time for a nice place to sit on a couch and communicate.”

Mike Morgan, vice president of Waldon Studio Architects, adds, “In all youth facilities, security is a big element. Making that transition both inviting and secure is a point that has to be well thought through and well-designed.”

“I wish youth pastors knew more about the process of design and construction,” Nelson says. “Youth guys are creative and want the space to support whatever it is they want to do. But while spaces can be designed with flexibility in mind, you need to identify what you are trying to achieve in the space. If you have to pick the top two goals, what are they? Make that missional decision in the beginning and make it stick. Changes are expensive.”

Waldon, too, poses a question for youth pastors. “Our main question is do you need 100% of the space 100% of the time? Most often [the] answer is no. Understanding [the] scheduling of activities can allow you to put more into less space, resulting in greater allocation of resources.”

Carver interjects, “[Churches] need to give the kids something they are proud of. Don’t fake it. Do it so it is timely, but don’t go so overboard that you have a trend that fades.”

And Benham concludes, “The success of the space is about the leadership. A great youth pastor can make marginal facilities work. It is the people who connect.”

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